Man's road to citizenship a reminder to appreciate what we have

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comJanuary 28, 2013 

Sauveur Alexandre, one of the "boat people" from Haiti, became a naturalized American citizen this month with help from local volunteers.

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    Email David Lauderdale at dlauderdale@islandpacket.com.

Thanks to Jim Pegolotti of Sun City Hilton Head for sharing an all-American story.

"On Becoming an American Citizen"

By James Pegolotti

Three weeks ago, Sauveur Alexandre of Ridgeland became a United States citizen.

It happened in Charleston in the offices of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, with family members and me, a friend, there to enjoy the culmination of his 33-year goal.

With a touch of today's world, we went through security clearance and a metal detector to enter the ceremony room, where officers of the service welcomed the 36 citizens-to-be. It was standing-room-only, and a quick glance around the room at the faces of men and women made clear that the melting pot of America was about to gain further nourishment.

An immigration officer read off the names of the 24 countries whose sons and daughters were there to formally change allegiance to the United States -- countries such as Egypt, Ukraine, Costa Rica, Uganda, South Korea, Uzbekistan, Ghana, Argentina and the United Arab Emirates. Yes, some of the old guard countries were represented: France, Great Britain, Ireland and Canada.

No doubt, every one of the 36 applicants in that room had a special story to tell, but I know only the story of Sauveur, my student for four years at Literacy Volunteers of the Lowcountry.

Sauveur was born in Haiti and had less than one year of schooling because his father saw no future in education in a country where poverty was king. He kept Sauveur home for rice planting, the basis of their meager existence in rural Haiti.

By the time he was 20, Sauveur and a brother saw no other hope than America. For 19 days in the summer of 1980, the two of them, plus dozens of other Haitians, challenged the Atlantic Ocean in a rough-hewn houseboat. They were "boat people," hoping, praying to see the promised land of Florida. One storm nearly sank them, and two people died on the way, but those who landed on the "Plymouth Rock" of Miami did as Sauveur did -- knelt down and kissed the ground.

All the Haitians spent their first few days in jail, but then President Jimmy Carter's administration released them with permission to remain in the United States legally.

So began Sauveur's years of work: picking oranges in Florida and vegetables in North Carolina, cutting Fiberglas in fishing boat construction, and odd-jobs to provide for a wife and family. But it was a move to the Hilton Head Island area 19 years ago that brought him to a landscaping job at The Greenery, which has been his employer ever since.

Always on his mind was the goal of citizenship.

Once in the United States, Sauveur had to survive, knowing no English and unable to read. With the help of Haitians already in Florida, he gained enough "street English" to get by for years. Only a new son and a new wife forced him to finally face the truth: He needed to learn to read if he wanted to be a citizen. Four years at Literacy Volunteers and twice-a-week sessions did the trick, bringing him to reading at the fourth-grade level and giving him the lengthy preparation needed to pass the citizenship test of reading, writing and U.S. history.

It's not cheap to apply for citizenship. The application fee is $680. If there are significant questions raised about information provided or if the oral test is not passed, your application will be denied. If that happens, you can request a hearing. That's another $650.

This was the path Sauveur walked, starting with his face-to-face test with an immigration officer in February. He passed the oral test, but an unfortunate omission of some official court records in his application led to a rejection for citizenship.

In June, he applied for a hearing, supplying the needed documents. The hearing was held in Charleston on Nov. 6, Election Day. At the hearing, another officer decided Sauveur should submit official copies of his divorce and his subsequent marriage, something a previous officer had said was not necessary. He was given 30 days to supply the documents and was promised that once received, "That would be that." Official copies were supplied within two weeks.

And so it was that on Jan. 7, Sauveur Alexandre raised his hand before an officer of the U.S. Immigration Services, took the oath and became a citizen of this country. The ceremony was brief, but when the Pledge of Allegiance was spoken by the multitude in the room, "It was then," Sauveur said, "when my heart went thump, thump, thump. I was so happy; I thought I would faint." But he didn't, and for anyone looking at him, only a mile-wide smile told the truth of his feelings.

Perhaps every native-born American should visit such a ceremony. We take so much for granted.

In the summer of 1916, the New York Tribune Sunday Magazine published an article by a young journalist who had gone "to see our newly naturalized citizens of foreign birth take the oath of allegiance to the United States of America." In a large room in the Federal Building filled with rows of benches, applicants awaited their transformation into citizens of the U.S.

"Looking at these people," the man wrote, "I began to realize why ours is like no other nation on earth, and why, on the other hand, it is a little like every other nation on earth. For here sat Italians, Frenchmen, Germans, Irishmen, Poles, Swedes, Russian Jews, German Jews, Negroes, Englishmen -- men and women from every corner of the civilized world, gathered together to declare themselves Americans. ... It was a significant moment for these people."

Some things, thankfully, never change in our wonderful country.

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